The Struggle against Cultural Cleansing is a Security Imperative

On 2 July 2015, UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, participated in a Roundtable under the theme “Fighting Terrorist Financing: The Threat of Cultural Destruction and ISIS”, organized by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and its Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies.

The Roundtable focused on the need for new security strategies and international action to prevent extremism and its funding through the destruction of cultural heritage and the trafficking of stolen antiquities.

The Director of the Centre for Financial Crime and Security Studies, Mr Tom Keatinge, chaired the meeting, which saw also an intervention by the Chief Executive Officer of Art Recovery International, Mr Christopher Marinello, and that brought together a wide range of experts, analysts, officials, along with representatives of the media.

“It is not often that a Director-General of UNESCO is invited to speak about heritage and culture with security experts,” said the Director-General in opening. “This says something about the nature of conflicts today, when culture has moved to the centre of the battlefield.”

The Director-General gave an overview of the scale of destruction of cultural heritage sites in Iraq and Syria, noting that “it has reached unprecedented levels in modern history.”

“This is part of a strategy that I call cultural cleansing, used as a tactic of war, to terrify populations, to finance criminal activities,” said Irina Bokova. “UNESCO has worked hard, so this link is better understood at the political level.”

The Director-General gave an overview of UNESCO’s action in combatting the trafficking of cultural heritage. She highlighted the UNESCO 1970 Convention, the first international framework to fight looting and illicit trafficking, UNESCO’s support to Member States for the adoption of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2199, which condemns the destruction of cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria, and adopts legally-binding measures to combat the illicit trafficking of antiquities and cultural objects from these countries, the launch of a platform of experts to exchange and monitor information to verify the authenticity of artefacts.

Underscoring the difficulties of collecting veritable information regarding the nature and extent of illegal trade of antiquities, Irina Bokova called upon the members of the UN Security Council “to share any relevant intelligence they may have in this regard, to help counter these criminal activities.”

In this context, the Director-General made an appeal for deeper cooperation with think tanks, such as RUSI.

“It is said you can’t fight an enemy you don’t know” – this is why we need more research and better analysis.”

Discussion followed the defining the routes and the financial scale of illicit trafficking, as well as the possibility of principles to bring together all actors.